Shani Halfon had vowed that there would be no pink – a colour she loathes herself – but by the time her daughter was 2, there was no avoiding it: Desta wanted everything to be pink. By the time she went to preschool, she refused to wear pants.
Halfon remembers her opening a gift box that contained evening gloves, a purse and a tiara, and watching her dress herself in front of a mirror, and walk away.
"She knew exactly what to do," says Halfon, a Toronto-based child-care researcher. "That was very eye-opening for me. I thought I was going to shape who this person was, and I was so dead wrong. I am only one little piece of what shapes that little human being."
For many still-new mothers determined to raise their little girls as self-assured, take-charge women, the most misguided of sentences begins: "My daughter will never.…" Take your pick: Wear a tutu, play with Barbies, worship Cinderella. Then those parental ideals meet child reality, and the feminist fairy tale crumbles. That coveted tiara is often the tipping point – that moment when many a mother finds herself, despite all efforts, defeated by the bedazzled princesses in the pink aisle of the toy store, ubiquitous on cereal boxes, lunch boxes and toothpaste, a nefarious plot to colour every girl pink.
But perhaps Snow White and her frothy cohort are doing them a favour – after all, they're not big on subtlety. The mothers I interviewed for this story admitted that seeing their daughters choose not the prince-rescuing Paper Bag Princess of Robert Munsch's classic but the glammed-up Sleeping Beauty who needed rescuing herself, forced them to look in the mirror and confront their own values, body image and gender perceptions. Suddenly the questions aren't so theoretical: Why does what a little girl wear matter so much? What's wrong with being "girlie?" And who gave pink so much power anyway?
"I thought I'd be vigilant against The Pink. I thought I'd keep them princess-free," explains Andrea Phillips, a New York game designer who writes about feminism. But when her daughters wanted the toys and clothes targeted to girls, she found her objections sounded hollow, and worse, a lot closer to the sexist messaging from which she was trying to protect them.
"It was hard for me to come up with an answer that didn't boil down to, 'You can't have it because it's girl stuff, and girl stuff is bad.' And that is what really got me thinking." After all, she says, "The goal here isn't one of conformity – we don't want to build a world of men doing man things with a diversity of genitals. The goal here is one of choice."
And while she cringed at first, she let her daughters choose. When her eldest was 2, Phillips says, she even went through her own "pink phase" that included shoes, handbags and nails – what she now calls a "subconscious act of solidarity." Reconsidering her own values, she says, "I'd suddenly realized that the message I'd received wasn't that women should be equal – it's that women should be men, because women are inferior. And I simply couldn't tolerate that."
Liz Kesten, a Toronto mother, describes her two daughters, Sojourner, 3, and Ibby, 2, as very "rough-and-tumble, adventurous girls who love the concept of good versus evil." But, Kesten observes, "When they do battle with the bad guys, it's in tiaras, ball gowns and heels." That's caused Kesten to wonder if her own view of femininity was too narrow. "You get so contained in roles," she says, "always playing the strong girl, while suppressing the other part," she says. "When you see how fluid they are, it allows for more room in your own life. It's very freeing." Her daughters insisted she wear dresses, which she had always avoided.
Many of the mothers said they made conscious changes to their behaviour– from speaking positively about their jobs, or, as Halfon says, being more aware of the tenor of their male relationships, to not making critical comments about their own weight or appearance, and not referencing celebrities in those terms either. One Ottawa mom stopped painting her toenails after her first daughter was born – partly because time was short, but also because she wanted to delay the conversation about appearance. A Toronto-area mother, who had always shied away from jewellery or frilly clothes – all the things, she says, "that girly girls drool over" – began to reconsider her own biases about tutus and ballerinas. "I've always associated stereotypically feminine traits as being somewhat weak and a disadvantage of sorts. I know this is short-sighted, something I have to work on."
Some moms admitted those conversations led to them examining their own body image, and become more accepting of themselves. "I don't want them to see me having a fit over what to wear, or if something is feeling tight," says Sarah Rani Sharma, a Canadian who's now a professor at the University of North Carolina. "Raising girls has made me more comfortable with myself.
For Anya Shor, a Toronto art-gallery owner, allowing her two daughters autonomy has required grudgingly accepting that sometimes they will ask for a nauseating story about a fairy who decides her "gift to the world" is making cupcakes. Her five-year-old, Simone, would wear a princess dress everyday if her mother allowed it. (It's at-home wear only.) "I don't want to be the one to say to her that this is crap. Because if anything, it's going to push her in the wrong direction," says Shor. "It's really about nurturing a discernment in my two girls so they can recognize what is truly beautiful for themselves. Even if I want to throw it in the garbage."
But in the end, as Halfon says, pink is just a stand-in for the feminine stereotypes that inundate little girls, and often translate into a swing too far the other way. "Why aren't we teaching our daughters to value their nurturing qualities?" she asks. "If you want to change the world, talk to them about why those things are undervalued."
Nearly four years after writing her book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Peggy Orenstein recognizes some progress. The Disney princesses, like those in the movie Frozen, have become more independent and feisty. The British department store Marks & Spencer has vowed to stop sorting its toys by gender, even if the merchandise on the shelves is still notably pink versus blue. But now working on a book on teenage girls and body image, Orenstein sees that even highly successful young women are still wrestling with body-image issues, revealing to her the pressure to be the school council president, the math star, all while still "looking hot" doing so. During the interview, her daughter, now 10, and well past play-acting a poisoned, passive Snow White awaiting the prince's kiss, offers her own take: "You never completely escape the Disney princess."